Dear Lowell Community,
My nightly school dreams, which I have had every August since I started teaching, began this week. They are my internal alarm announcing the approaching start of school, and while some are more surreal than others, they all include happy children learning.
Lowell’s faculty and staff, along with members of our community, have been working tirelessly this summer to plan for a successful return to learning despite these unprecedented times. Our goal has always been to start school entirely in-person with the necessary and appropriate policies, guidelines, and procedures in place to reduce the risk of transmission as much as possible. Simultaneously, our obligation to keep employees, teachers, students, and our community’s families as safe as possible has remained at the forefront of our decision-making when it comes to the model in which that learning happens.
To that end, I am writing to announce that Lowell School will open in September in a hybrid model that includes fully in-person learning for our Pre-Primary students and fully remote learning for Kindergarten through 8th grade.
There is much information I want to share with you about this decision, but first, I want to be clear on one crucial point: This decision is not permanent, nor will it be in place through the end of the first term or calendar year. We will evaluate our operating status every 4-6 weeks, continuing to carefully monitor the research, guidelines, and recommendations from other official sources. Our decision did not come easily, nor was it made without considerable thought, intentionality, and focus on the needs of all in our community. I believe this decision is sound and in the best interest of all involved.
I am deeply indebted to our task force members
, who have worked tirelessly over the summer to prepare for a variety of scenarios. These individuals joined me in: finding and processing the most up to date research; attending hours of webinars on reopening schools; noting valuable lessons from our successful on-campus summer camp; considering and balancing the wide variety of needs and wants in our community; making the necessary adjustments to our facilities, operations, and programming to ensure the safest environment and most effective return to learning possible for students and employees; and holding at the core of their work the following principles:
- The safety and well-being of our community is the highest priority.
- Continuous learning throughout the school year is necessary for students to develop across all developmental domains.
- Our mission and values will always steer our decision making in all aspects of our thinking and actions.
Research regarding the spread of coronavirus has consistently shifted, even as recently as the last few weeks. Data suggests that the virus is more easily transmissible than originally thought in children older than 10, and news stories confirm that, as more children gather in spaces such as camp and school, more are being diagnosed positive. Questions also exist regarding whether the virus is more easily transmissible in younger children than previously believed.
In a meeting last week, the deputy director of public health for the District of Columbia shared that the area is seeing an uptick of COVID-19 cases but not at a level that warrants a total shutdown. That said, the outlook for the next 2-3 weeks is unclear, and if we can’t control the communities outside of school, it makes it very difficult to consider opening a campus. The metrics from DC Health show data that support a safe return to schools— with proper safeguards in place—but there are a few notable standards that are trending in the wrong direction. These trends are documented on a 7-14 day average, which implies that a few weeks from now, the broader community could conceivably find itself in a more risky situation.
By all accounts, Lowell’s summer camp was a success. Occurring on campus for five weeks, we ended our final session without a single diagnosed case of COVID-19 among counselors, staff, or campers. Our tremendous camp staff, led by Dawn Smith—who is also our Interim Director of Pre-Primary School—is to be credited with creating, implementing, and consistently following through on a robust mitigation plan.
Through our experience, we were able to observe and take note of successful steps and lessons that are being applied to the reopening of our Pre-Primary School. We learned that a gradual approach to opening, starting with a small number of students and families, not only helps people lean into the experience progressively, but also provides the necessary time to ease into new routines and procedures with confidence. Our camp experience validated research from schools around the world that show the youngest students tend to be most compliant in following the rules of wearing masks and practicing social distancing. This is aided by the appropriate use of songs and cues that are not scary or punitive being used to help them remember and internalize the practices.
Four of our Pre-Primary teachers also served as camp staff, and their firsthand success, experience, and confidence bode well for the return of Lowell’s youngest students to campus.
Needs and Wants
I have spent much of the last month listening to members of our community. These genuinely are unprecedented times, creating a wide swath of emotions and worries.
The worries are wide-ranging, and have resulted in an equally wide-ranging list of perceived needs and desired wants for student learning. Parents are worried about how to successfully support their children in remote learning while working full time. Parents are also concerned about sending their children to school at a time when COVID-19 appears to impact children more than first thought. Faculty are worried about their students’ social, emotional, and academic growth if they do not return to campus for learning; and, they are concerned about their own health if they return to teaching on campus, as well as the impact their exposure could have on the health of their loved ones. I have heard from parents that their children can’t wait to get back to campus, but they are also scared that they will “catch coronavirus” in school.
Lowell is committed to making our school as safe as possible and comfortable for all. And I know that our community shares that commitment. The last thing any of us want is for our fear and anxiety to transmit or extend to our students. Beginning the school year engaging in remote learning for Kindergarten-8th grade allows more time for all of us to adapt.
What we know instinctively, and had validated by our experience last spring, is that remote learning is inappropriate for our Pre-Primary students. The older the Pre-Primary student, the more success the student can have. However, the developmental levels of early learners require them to be engaged in person-to-person experiences if they are going to thrive socially, emotionally, cognitively, and physically. By reopening our Pre-Primary School first, we are able to address the needs of the most vulnerable virtual learners and begin paving the way for greater in-person learning opportunities for our entire school.
Our Facilities, Operations, and Programming
We have worked all summer to ensure that our campus is ready to receive learners and employees when the time is right. Our HVAC filters have been upgraded, and increased airflow has been pushed through our HVAC systems, maximizing the amount of outside air that enters each building. We have also purchased tents, solidified wi-fi access on our field, and made it possible for classes to be held outside. We have repurposed spaces on campus to accommodate the additional classroom capacity necessitated by smaller cohorts. Also, our Health and Safety Task Force has made numerous conservative recommendations to facilitate a low-risk return to campus, including new cleaning protocols.
Our Teaching and Learning Task Force has built schedules and designed cohorts that allow for a smooth and easy transition from remote to on-campus learning and back again if necessary, all the while minimizing risk of transmission and maximizing learning. To make learning as deep as possible regardless of location, while also holding true to our mission and our priority of continued health and safety for all, we have made decisions to alter the ways we engage with our students.
Our teachers have refined both their on-campus and online teaching pedagogies, and been involved in hundreds of hours of professional development. They participated in offerings on project-based learning with PBLWorks
, online learning design with Global Online Academy
, certification with Google
, and an intensive course on distance learning through the Association of Independent Maryland & DC Schools, in addition to training and reading on wide-ranging topics, including middle school child development, curriculum mapping, culturally responsive teaching, and school counseling in a virtual setting. Across the board, our teachers are ready to engage in this year’s school experience with your children, regardless of location.
The same set of guiding principles has informed every decision made by each task force throughout the past few months, including the decision to bring our students back gradually. The safety and well-being of our entire community have been at the forefront of every conversation, exploration, and recommendation. Alongside the principles of safety and well-being, we have held fast to our belief that continuous learning is best for students, and that our mission is our reason for existing. That will remain true as we re-evaluate the ever-changing conditions in our school, our community, and the DC metro area at large.
We are confident that, barring an upward trend of infection in the DMV, our reopening strategy will work, and that we will eventually be able to provide in-person learning for all who desire it. We do, however, recognize that some families may choose to remain in all remote learning based on their specific circumstances, and we will support that decision. The strategies we have outlined will help Lowell to open and stay open, in a manner that protects the physical and emotional well-being of our entire community.
The Board of Trustees and I have spent many sleepless nights striving to make the best decisions possible for our community. I join you in yearning for a return to a traditional Lowell experience, and I feel deeply for all families being put in the position of having to make extremely difficult decisions due to the complications that come from our current and future “normal.” However, I do believe that our current plan will build the foundation for a successful full return to campus and avoid the possibility of Lowell having to take two steps back after taking one step forward. Phasing into a safe return allows us to plan thoughtfully for students and adults while acknowledging that the infection levels in the District of Columbia could force us to revise our choices and remain in remote learning for longer than anticipated.
My goal in making this decision is to uphold the collective well-being of our community. I hope that we can support and acknowledge each other, recognizing that this is not about finding a solution that works for each individual, but rather about rallying together around a plan that works for the greater good.
I want to invite you to learn more about our plan for returning to school during a community meeting tomorrow, August 13, at 7:00 p.m. In advance of that meeting, I am sharing with you both our plan
, as well as a detailed set of FAQs
. Additionally, we will have separate open office hours with each division director next week for you to learn about specific plans for your child’s grade. That schedule will be announced during the community meeting.
I am thinking of you all, and grateful for your partnership and patience.
Take good care,